Many NJ School Districts Move Voting to November

April 9, 2012

TRENTON — New Jersey’s April school elections — quirky, important and often ignored by voters — are fast becoming a relic of the past.

Only 73 districts are holding them on April 17 after a new state law allowed school officials to move the votes on school budgets and board candidates to November’s major election day.

The state Education Department said 468 districts have switched election dates since a law allowing them to do so was adopted in January. (Nearly 50 districts don’t hold elections because they’re under state control or have appointed rather than elected school boards.)

There are two main benefits for the districts for moving: As long as the local school property taxes don’t go up by more than 2 percent, districts switching to November don’t have to put their budgets to a public vote and risk rejection. And by switching, they can have county election boards pay the full cost of elections.

Before the election switch, New Jersey was the only state where most voters got a direct up-or-down vote on their local school budgets.

Even though the state’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes (average household bill: $7,600) are constantly one of the top public issues in the state and schools take up most of that amount, the elections sometimes seemed like well-kept secrets.

For decades, fewer than one in five voters bothered to show up each April to vote on the only big tax item on which they had a direct say. And most years, a wide majority of budgets were adopted.

The formula changed abruptly two years ago.

Encouraged by cost-slashing and teacher-union-bashing Gov. Chris Christie, more than one-fourth of voters went to the polls in 2010 — and they rejected nearly 60 percent of the school budget proposals, sending them to municipal governments for trimming.

By last year, a new property tax cap was in effect — a 2 percent cap with few exceptions instead of the old 4 percent limit, which had many exceptions. An overwhelming majority of budgets — 8 in 10 — were approved by voters.

The tighter limits on spending mean that not much is gained by holding budget votes, said Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

“The budget referendum is really not necessary to protect the interest of taxpayers.” he said. “It ends up being a frustrating experience.”

When voters nix budgets, it’s up to municipal government officials to find places to trim. And usually, their cuts are not especially deep.

Lawmakers decided in January to give school boards the option to switch election dates — and take away the direct budget votes. The state Education Department told districts they should decide, for this year, by February. Most districts acted fast — a decision that will also extend the terms of some board members for another six months.

But not every district jumped.

Some are concerned that holding votes in November will make school elections, which are traditionally nonpartisan, seem like another Democrat-Republican issue.

Some have other reasons.

“Our board of education was very concerned that they not deny the voters the opportunity to vote on the school budget,” said David Mooij, the superintendent in Neptune Township.

Besides, he said, school officials in the shore community find selling the budget to the public a good way to build support for local schools.

The districts that are keeping elections in April still must abide by the 2 percent tax-hike cap. If they want to spend more, they have to put the additional amount to voters in a second budget question. This month, only three districts — Haddon Heights, Hawthorne and Warren County’s Greenwich — have second questions. Additionally, East Rutherford is asking voters to approve a bond issue to pay for construction projects.